New Unions for the New Economy
In the new economy, where processing information is as important as bending metal, do workers believe that organizing unions can help them make their jobs better?
To answer that question, you have to talk to people in places as different as Endicott, N.Y., and Redmond, Wash.
A gritty factory town in the Hudson Valley, Endicott is the birthplace of IBM, the nation's leading manufacturer of computers.
A fast-growing suburb of Seattle, Redmond is the headquarters of Microsoft, the leading creator of the software that allows computers to perform tasks from word-processing to financial forecasting.
Working with a major national union, workers in both communities recently have begun to organize. They've already started to reverse IBM's cuts in veteran employees' pensions and to reshape Microsoft's treatment of its large number of temporary workers. And they're offering new models for a labor movement seeking new ways to relate to workers in the new economy.
While the "new economy" has almost as many definitions as observers, most agree that its hallmarks include global competition, advanced technology, the erosion of stable jobs with secure benefits in large corporations such as the old IBM, and the need for workers to learn new skills as they struggle to make their way in a churning job market.
So far, this "new economy" is almost entirely non-union. While union membership is increasing in government, in education, and in several fast-growing industries, such as health care and hotels, unions have yet to find a foothold in high-technology occupations. And, while the Labor Department projects that the fastest job growth is taking place among professionals and technicians, few of these workers are joining unions, except in the public sector.
Much of this situation results from fierce employer opposition and federal labor laws that make organizing difficult and are often laxly enforced as well. But public opinion surveys show there is also a gap between what many workers, particularly those in the "new economy," perceive unions as offering and the ways in which these workers themselves want to make their jobs better. While traditional unions are sometimes seen as imposing rigidities on workplaces, "new economy" workers, in particular, are likely to. want assistance in advancing their careers as they change jobs; they want portable health and pension benefits, flexible hours that allow them to balance work and family, and they want-cooperative relationships with managers that allow them a voice in decision-making.
Lately, there has been a lively debate among labor organizers, sympathetic academics, and other analysts about how unions can play a larger and more useful role in this emerging economy.
Some say unions should look beyond their traditional role of helping workers improve their pay, benefits, and conditions by bargaining and enforcing contracts with their employers. Instead, in a strategy some call "back to the future," unions would take on some of the tasks once assumed by workers' guilds and still performed by craft unions and professional organizations. These efforts would include providing education, training, and professional certification; offering workers pension and health care benefits that they can take with them from job to job; and helping workers improve the quality of their products and services. Such organizations, some say, would have a less adversarial relationship with employers than most existing unions.
To be sure, many unions in every sector of the economy already are doing many of these things. But, taken together, these new roles and responsibilities constitute a vision of a new unionism for the new economy.
But how does this vision compare with reality? Looking at some of the flagship industries of the "new economy"—computers, software, and electronic commerce—what problems are workers experiencing, what solutions are they seeking, and what forms of organization are they developing?
At well-known companies such as IBM, Microsoft and Amazon.com, workers are facing difficulties with roots in the old economy as well as the new—low pay, poor working conditions, and cuts in pension benefits, as well the problems plaguing temporary workers and the long hours endemic to the new breed of high-technology companies.
In response to these problems, workers in communities like Endicott, Redmond, and others with high concentrations of high-tech workers are beginning to build organizations that advocate employees' concerns even without formal collective bargaining rights, using tactics from legislative action to media campaigns. They are becoming respected sources of information and training. And, in all these efforts, they're making innovative use of the Internet.
But, largely because most non-union employers treat independent employee organizations of any kind as enemies, these new employee groups are not yet poised to be partners with management, helping them hire skilled workers and hear employees' views about improving productivity and quality.
At opposite ends of the continent, Endicott and Redmond represent very different stages in the high-tech industry's evolution. And they are giving rise to varying forms of employee organizations.
Union-building at "Big Blue"
In Endicott, more than 80 years ago, IBM was founded as a manufacturer of cash registers, adding machines, and other business equipment. Over the years, under the leadership of its legendary founder, Thomas Watson, IBM became the nation's leading producer of computers, starting with the huge "mainframes" that became essential to major corporations, government agencies, and educational and health care institutions in the years after World War II.
Watson was known for two watchwords: "Think," which emphasized IBM's early leadership in information technology, and "Respect for the individual," which underscored IBM's familial, almost paternalistic corporate culture. Under Watson and his son, Thomas Jr., IBM resisted unionization but offered generous pay and benefits and guaranteed job security to its employees, from programmers to production workers. For decades, the IBM personnel manual boasted:
In nearly 40 years, no person employed on a regular basis by IBM has lost as much as one hour of working time be-cause of a layoff. When recessions come or there is a major product shift, some companies handle the work-force imbalances that result by letting people go. IBM hasn't done that, hopes never to have to.... It's hardly a surprise that one of the main reasons people like to work for IBM is the company's all-out effort to maintain full employment.
But, by the early 1990s, that personnel manual read like an artifact from an earlier era. Facing declining demand for mainframes, unable to establish a secure beachhead in the growing market for smaller computers, and losing ground in the software sector as well, the giant corporation that had been dubbed as "Big Blue" was running in the red. For the first time in its history; IBM resorted to a massive downsizing, wiping out 60,000 jobs through layoffs and early retirements. And in 1993, also for the first time, it looked outside its own ranks for a new chief executive officer to lead its last-ditch effort at recovery, turning to Louis Gerstner Jr., who had made his name at American Express and RJR Nabisco.
By streamlining operations, modernizing marketing, and emphasizing client service as well as computer production, Gerstner helped return IBM to profitability. But the company's continued efforts to cut the work force and curtail wage increases angered many employees, especially in view of Gerstner's own compensation package, which last year totaled $60 million in salary, benefits, and stock options.
This May, when IBM announced a new pension plan widely viewed as victimizing midcareer employees, it triggered protests from workers already uneasy after years of widespread layoffs and meager pay increases. In communities with IBM offices and factories, from Endicott, Fishkill, and Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to Burlington, Vt.; Raleigh, N.C.; Austin, Texas; and San Jose and Los Angeles, Calif., hundreds of workers attended protest meetings that generated interest in union organizing. Meanwhile, angry workers shared information and ideas through Web sites such as www.ibmunion.com and www.cashpensions.com.
By August, some of the most union-minded workers had reached out to the Communications Workers of America. Together with CWA, these employees began building the Alliance@IBM, an organizing committee that is speaking out on issues such as the pension plan while laying the groundwork for an eventual election to win union representation in collective bargaining.
In mid-September, when IBM partially backed down from its proposal, allowing 35,000 more employees to keep their existing pension benefits, the move was seen as a response to the employees' protests. Thus, Sen. James Jeffords (R-Vt.), whose committee is investigating the pension issue, declared: "He [Gerstner] recognized he had a problem, obviously, from the employees' reaction, and he listened to his employees."
The "employees' reaction" was exploding into anger, just a few weeks earlier, when I visited an organizing committee meeting at the Alliance@IBM's new office in Endicott.
Seated around the conference-room table was a cross section of IBM workers, from a tool and model maker to a zone analyzer. They discussed the proposed pension shift—not yet modified by management—from a traditional defined benefits plan, where workers receive a predictable monthly check upon retirement based on years of service, to a cash benefits plan, where the company began setting up individual retirement accounts for each of its 140,000 employees in the United States.
The workers agreed they would stand to lose more than 25 percent of their benefits under the new plan. Some said it was designed to save IBM money as well as make the company more attractive to younger workers who would not spend their careers there and would want to take their pension money with them.
To most of the workers at the meeting and women in their 40s and 50s with 20 years or more of service to IBM—the issue was moral as well as material, with wide-ranging concerns that reach well beyond the pension plan. Did IBM honor the contributions of loyal employees who had willingly sacrificed during the difficult years of the early '90s? Some thought IBM was becoming more like Microsoft, a free-form company where employees are seen as disposable parts, not dependable partners. A few remembered the letter IBM sent to employees, explaining the pension changes, offering an ironic counterpoint to the language of the old personnel manual:
The fact that significantly fewer people are staying with one company their full careers means that, more and more, people are looking for opportunities to contribute and be rewarded sooner in their careers.
"I wonder whether this is the company I went to work for," says Patricia Johnson, a circuit designer with 22 years at IBM. "My father worked for 44 years here in Endicott. He was always talking about how good the company was, and I wanted to work there. We made sacrifices. We were doing it for the company because they had done well by us. Now we wonder whether top management appreciates what we have done."
Turning to another area where IBM is cutting back—medical benefits for retirees—Robert Smith, who has worked for 22 years in equipment maintenance says: "People who worked under T.J. Watson were told they would have medical benefits for life. We were told something, we worked for years to get it, and now they're going to take it away. That is wrong."
In addition to retirement take-aways, workers saw a change in atmosphere at IBM. Richard Roscoe, an equipment maintenance worker, explains: "I started in about 1980. I thought IBM was the most wonderful place I had ever seen. The technology was the most advanced. Manufacturing a mainframe was like coming on to a scene from Star Trek."
Over the years, workers found IBM's corporate culture becoming less friendly, with the fear of layoffs, small and infrequent pay raises, and more pressures on the job—"a decade of torture," as Roscoe puts it. At the end of it all, they felt unappreciated. "Trust has been broken," Smith asserts, to approving nods from his co-workers.
Smith also expresses the logic that is leading many IBM workers to organize a union: "You can't take on the world's largest computer company on your own."
As the meeting continued, committee members and CWA organizer Jeff Latcher sketched out organizing plans—a mix of traditional union tactics and information-age innovations.
With support from CWA, the organizing committees at Endicott and other IBM outposts would become the Alliance@IBM—a national employee advocacy group. East Coast members would board buses to Washington, D.C., to attend U.S. Senate and House hearings on the changes in the pension plan.
Meanwhile, the Affiance would set up a Web site of its own—www.allianceibm.org. And, while most employees at Endicott have home computers, the organizing committee members discussed bringing an online computer to the new union office, so that workers could visit Web sites about IBM issues.
Second-class in Seattle
By building an organization capable of challenging corporate management, these IBM workers are following in the footsteps of Microsoft employees who last year founded a similar group—the Washington Alliance of Technical Workers or WashTech.
Most of these workers are longterm temporary employees—"perma-temps," as many angrily but accurately call themselves. They are nominally employed by temporary agencies, which pay their wages. Thus, they fall through the gaps in federal labor law, which makes it almost impossible for workers in such situations to win the right to form a union and bargain with their employer.
Thus, WashTech currently functions less as a traditional union than as a source of information and an advocate on issues for employees at Microsoft and another fast-growing Seattle-based company, the online bookstore Amazon.com, as well other high-tech workers throughout the state.
For these workers, it wasn't one issue but a constellation of concerns that caused them to create an organization of their own last year.
Of Microsoft's more than 20,000 employees, some 6,000 are temporary and contract workers who per-form professional tasks—testing software, writing manuals and other materials such as Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia, developing CD-ROMs, and designing Web pages.
Required to wear yellow badges at Microsoft's seemingly casual, campus-like headquarters in Redmond, the temporaries are at the bottom of the corporate caste system—below the regular employees who wear blue badges and workers for established vendors, such as the shuttle bus company, who wear brown badges.
Compared to regular employees, the temporaries receive an inferior economic package—no stock options, no pay on sick days, and a less comprehensive health plan. Although many of these workers are young, single, and childless, these conditions are especially trying for workers who have, or want to have, children and families.
Almost as galling are the indignities of second-class status in a company that prides itself on its friendly and informal environment. While they can enjoy the free drinks Microsoft offers its employees, temporary workers cannot use the company's athletic fields or attend the company's annual picnic. And the "permatemps" have come to be called "a-dashes" because their @microsoft.com e-mail accounts are all marked with an "a-" before their names.
The stigmatizing letter "a" stands for the employment agencies that are the temporary workers' nominal employers although they were hired and supervised by Microsoft. After being selected for their jobs, temporary workers are assigned to one of 15 employment agencies, which then provide their paychecks. As Lisa Lewis, a longterm perma-temp, told a Washington state Senate committee hearing this year:
In the last two years, I have worked in the same group, with the same agency, on a contract that renewed every three months. When Microsoft hired me, they said I have to "join" an agency.
The arrangement benefits everyone but the employees: Microsoft avoids the costs and commitments of retaining regular workers. The agencies get substantial fees without doing much more than sending out paychecks and W2 forms. But the temporary workers are trapped in an economic limbo.
In response to these conditions, Microsoft workers founded WashTech in 1998 and soon affiliated with CWA. Two of the group's founders, software tester Marcus Courtney, and technical writer Mike Blain, now work for WashTech full time.
"What prompted me to start questioning the system was the whole scam," Blain recalls. "If you have a team of 20 writers or testers, they might nominally work for five agencies or more. We're working at Microsoft, using Microsoft equipment, but ostensibly the staffing companies are providing our paychecks. They don't add any value—it's more like money laundering."
Similarly, Courtney remembers: "I was really hired by Microsoft. I sent my resume in. I was interviewed by a Microsoft manager. And then they sent me to an agency."
For Courtney, the job brought important responsibilities—and constant humiliations. he helped test Microsoft's major product—Windows 98. But, he says, "All of a sudden, I'd be walking down the hall, I'd see none of my blue-badge co-workers around, I'd ask what had happened to them, and someone would say that they were at a meeting about the product without us yellow-badges."
After both workers reached out to Seattle's King County Central Labor Council, its organizing director, Jonathan Rosenblum, introduced them to each other. Together with like-minded colleagues, they founded WashTech.
Appropriately for an organization of information-industry workers, the group sees itself as a source of what Blain calls "information about Microsoft that you can't get anywhere else." Through its Web site (www.Washtech.org) and a newsletter that it e-mails to subscribers, WashTech not only offers news about company policies but surveys its readers about developments at their work sites.
A former journalist himself, Blain excitedly describes WashTech's efforts, using language that owes as much to his background as a reporter as to his new role as an organizer:
We get internal company documents ahead of time and notify people of pending policy changes. Last July, Microsoft implemented a new policy that said if you were on an assignment for 12 months or longer as a temporary employee, you have to leave for a month.
They called it a break in service—in fact, it was a forced layoff. It's a shell-game designed to make workers look like short-term contractors when they really are long-term employees. It's designed to get around the lawsuit that defined the perma-temps as regular employees.
We found out about it before it happened. We posted the story on our Web site. A lot of the staffing agencies didn't even know about it. We broke that story, and it got picked up by the Seattle Times.
Many of WashTech's priorities emerged from a survey of Microsoft employees conducted through the Internet. More than 500 workers responded, and they expressed these concerns:
- A majority of temporary workers have been at Microsoft for at least a year.
- A third have worked at Microsoft for two years or more.
- Sixty percent would prefer to have permanent, full-time jobs.
- Ninety percent said they were concerned about full disclosure of staffing agency fees.
- And almost two-thirds of Microsoft temporary employees do not believe that their agencies best represent their interests.
Acting on these issues, WashTech has promoted "agency choice," so that employees can choose which agency they work through within their job category. In a partial victory for WashTech, Microsoft recently announced a new policy allowing workers some choices and encouraging agencies to offer a "baseline package" of medical coverage and other benefits. Now, technical writers will be able to choose among five approved agencies, but software testers can still "choose" only one agency.
In another effort, WashTech and the Washington State AFL-CIO Labor Council are supporting a bill that would create a state legislative study of temporary workers' concerns, including the role of employment agencies. WashTech has mobilized Microsoft temporary workers to testify before the Legislature about their problems on the job.
In addition to advancing their concerns, WashTech offers high-tech workers a sense of community that is often lacking in their lives. "People want to be part of something," Courtney explains. "One thing that strikes you in high tech, even though this work force is the most wired in the world, is that there is a real sense of isolation and a longing for community."
WashTech offers a virtual community—and an actual one as well. About 2,000 workers have given the group their home e-mail addresses, so that they can receive WashTech's online newsletter. More than 200 have joined WashTech as formal members, paying regular monthly dues. "E-mails are no substitute for one-on-one contact," Courtney says. "We're constantly having one-on-one meetings, building meetings, membership meetings."
These activities are also making WashTech attractive for employees of another major Seattle-area company, the online bookstore Amazon.com. Amazon's more than 400 customer service representatives must be college graduates, and most are in their 20s. But they are paid only $10 or $11 an hour, in addition to stock options that vest completely after five years of service.
While Amazon doesn't use perma-temps, employees express other frustrations: low pay; no clear career paths; overwork and overcrowded conditions; and inept management by supervisors who are almost as young as the workers they direct.
In a telephone interview, an Amazon worker (and WashTech member) who refused to be identified, even by his first name, told this story:
In my department, basically all you do all day is answer e-mails from customers about books. You have a quota you have to meet for how many e-mail messages you answer. If you meet that quota, that's what the supervisors really care about.
Until a short while ago, there were about 400 to 500 people packed into one building. We were all using the same two bathrooms—one for men, one for women.
There were no fire exits. There was poor ventilation. We worked two people per cubicle. It was like working in someone's basement.
This isn't the job most people expected. We thought our knowledge of books would be more important. In the job interview, they tell you, "We're so non-corporate. You can wear casual clothes. People dye their hair and pierce parts of their bodies. It's one big happy family."
The truth is, it's very corporate. It's impossible to look at your job any other way than the manager tells you. The attitude is, "You're either one of us, or you're against us."
As WashTech continues to grow, its activists are exploring how it can serve high-tech workers without collective bargaining.
"Our organizing is really centered around trying to build a membership-based organization in the absence of contracts—an effective advocacy group like the Sierra Club or the National Rifle Association," says Blain. And Courtney adds, "We also want to help people build careers in this industry."
Thus, WashTech offers courses on computer skills, software writing languages, and other subjects for Seattle-area high-tech workers. While Microsoft doesn't provide training for temporary workers, and private courses often cost $600 or more for 10 hours of training, WashTech offers classes for members for only $75.
Looking to the future, Blain suggests that WashTech, the King County Labor Council and the CWA co-sponsor a computer lab and high-tech training for union members and other interested people throughout the Seattle area.
"The potential for using training as a recruiting tool is incredible, and the need for training and retraining just to keep up with new technologies is enormous," he says. "We've got to think big."
New Unions for the New Economy?
These efforts at IBM and Microsoft depart from traditional union organizing, which CWA Executive Vice President Larry Cohen describes as "focusing from the beginning on winning an election to get recognition."
WashTech and Alliance@IBM show that workers can build organizations that advance their interests, even before they win the right to bargain with their employers. And they illustrate how workers' organizations can offer other benefits as well—information about corporate policies, training for new skills, and even a sense of community that is absent in the workplace itself.
What of the other paths sketched out by some of the more visionary advocates of "new unions for the new economy"?
Some of the most influential and sophisticated recommendations for new forms of unionism come from Stephen A. Herzenberg, John R. Alic, and Howard Wial, who worked together at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and are now affiliated with the Keystone Research Center, a Pennsylvania think tank. In their recent book, New Rules for a New Economy: Employment and Opportunity in a Postindustrial America (Twentieth Century Fund/Cornell University Press, 1998), and in other writings, the authors argue that the new economy requires a new model of unionism.
With workers moving from project to project, job to job, and employer to employer, the authors suggest that unions should organize workers on the basis of their occupation, not the company where they work. Thus, there might be national organizations for computer programmers, software testers, or technical writers. This recommendation recalls the old-time workers' guilds, as well as today's craft unions, which were founded a century ago—thus, the phrase "back to the future" unionism.
According to these authors, the new economy's emphasis on workers' skills and adaptability to change creates two problems that these occupation-based unions could seek to solve. As companies continue to eliminate employees' jobs, and as workers change jobs frequently within their careers, "Firms have no incentive to train workers who may soon be 'downsized' or quit." And, with workers no longer relying on large corporations for lifetime guarantees of job security, health coverage, and retirement benefits, portable benefits are also important.
By assuming the functions of yesterday's guilds and today's craft unions, the authors argue, more unions could fill the needs of employers and employees in the new economy. Such unions would conduct education and training, set skill requirements for jobs, certify trained and capable workers, and become the leading advocates for high-quality work in the occupations they represent. They would help employers find skilled workers—and skilled workers find new or bet-ter jobs. And, by performing functions that benefit employees and employers alike, these "new unions" would be better able to cooperate with management in improving the quality of goods and services.
Similar views are offered by the leader of the innovative AFL-CIO Labor Council in another center of high-tech, California's Silicon Valley.
"The next generation of employee organizations may look very much like a page from the past," said Amy Dean, executive officer of the South Bay Labor Council. "In the first industrial revolution, we were a craft-based society. In the second, we became an industrial-based society. We are now in our third industrial revolution, and, in many respects, we are turning back to a craft-based society. The original labor organizations were craft based and regional in scope. So we might take a page from history in terms of the way we organize employee groups."
In fact, many unions already are doing much of what these writers recommend. The building trades unions, for instance, provide apprenticeships and journey-level training, certify workers' skills, negotiate multi-employer contracts, and provide portable pensions, health coverage, and other benefits that workers can carry with them from job to job. With assistance from the AFL-CIO, several national unions, among them the AFT and CWA, offer "associate memberships" to workers who are not covered by union contracts; these members receive information about issues of importance to their jobs, as well as such benefits as health coverage, credit cards, and legal insurance.
Meanwhile, professional and public service unions, such as the AFT, have long been voices for higher standards in education, health care, and other endeavors. Increasingly, there is an exchange of ideas among different unions from different sectors of the economy about how to respond to changing workplaces and workforces. For instance, the CWA's Cohen says: "Our dialogue over the years with [AFT Organizing Director] Phil Kugler, and AFT's efforts to build organizations prior to collective bargaining in cities like Dallas, have provided much of the inspiration for our high-tech organizations"
Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley, the South Bay Labor Council is reaching out to the industry's temporary workers.
In 1996, a think tank founded by the Labor Council—Working Partnerships USA—conducted a study which found that a quarter of the Valley's more than 800,000 workers are contingent employees—and that 32,000 were hired through employment agencies.
In an effort to help these workers obtain and share information about their work situations, the Labor Council launched a page on its Web site which offers materials about temporary employees' legal rights and job placement and training opportunities, as well as a forum for discussing their own experiences on their jobs.
This year, Working Partnerships founded an advocacy group for temporary employees, Working Partnerships Membership Organization, which began accepting dues-paying members in January.
And, together with community groups, Working Partnerships also created a nonprofit employment agency, Working Partnerships Staffing Services, to help temporary employees find jobs. Working with a local community college, the agency offers free classes to prepare workers for new and better jobs, including computer skills and word processing.
Currently focusing on clerical workers but planning to expand into other occupations, Working Partner-ships Staffing Services pays temporary workers $10 per hour—$2 more than for-profit agencies in the area. The agency is also negotiating with health-care providers for a group rate and hopes eventually to offer "portable" benefits, training, and job certification that workers can take with them from job to job.
Explaining the thinking behind these initiatives, the Labor Council's Amy Dean says: "We have to acknowledge that people work differently these days. Our goal is to transform employment practices by marrying a placement agency to an advocacy strategy that, in time, will raise the wage floor, allow access to benefits, and affect overall hiring practices."
But are such innovations likely to lead to entirely new forms of unionism, discarding the traditional emphases on improving pay, benefits, and working conditions through collective bargaining and challenging unfair management policies with tactics of all kinds?
At a forum sponsored by the New Economy Information Service, a research group based in Washington, D.C., that question was posed to three union organizers who have worked with professional employees, workers in high tech, and workers in industries without large and stable employers. In different ways, each favored innovative efforts, tempered by the understanding that, as long as most employers resist any efforts by their employees to build organizations of their own, it will be difficult for unions to emphasize their roles as sources of skilled labor and advocates for quality.
Such efforts are easiest in the public sector—from the schools to the local, state, and federal governments—where employers generally accept the existence of unions. In his presentation to the group, AFT organizing director Phil Kugler stressed the union's evolving role as a source of information and advocacy on the full range of educational issues, from curricula to discipline. These services are valuable not only to AFT members who are covered by union contracts but also to a growing number of "associate members" in communities where educators do not have collective bargaining rights.
Issue-oriented advocacy is increasingly important for other groups of professionals as well. For instance, psychologists who work with health maintenance organizations (HMOs) are experiencing second-guessing in decision-making, as well as reductions in reimbursements and even arbitrary cut-offs in treating patients. To help address these issues, the New York State Psychological Association has forged a working relationship with the AFT.
"This is happening in professional associations as the pressures build—the economics, the quality that's being sacrificed, the loss of autonomy in the role of setting standards," Kugler said. "This is not the traditional route [to union organizing]. But we're stepping into territory that's somewhat new and thinking outside the box."
But, particularly in the private sector where most employers fiercely resist unions, there is the question of whether employers will appreciate the value of unions as partners in recruiting and training skilled workers and enlisting employees' support in improving productivity and quality.
At the forum, Jeff Hermanson, who has organized for UNITE and the Carpenters union explained:
People talk about offering skilled labor to the employers and persuading the employers that this is of such great value that they will accept unionization. Well, I'm afraid that we have to do more than offer the carrot to employers because I've tried it many times. I always try to go nicely to the employer and say, you know, the majority of your workers would like to be represented by the union. We'd love to sit down with you and work out a way that could be to our benefit, a non-adversarial relationship. I've even taken to putting those terms in my letter of demand to employers—mutually beneficial, non-adversarial relationship.
And you know, I can't remember when that's ever been accepted.
But he also told the story of the Carpenters' efforts to organize the cabinet workers in Las Vegas who "provide all of the fancy architectural woodwork for the casinos and hotels." These workers received low pay and no benefits and often worked in "sweatshop" conditions. Many are recent immigrants.
Hermanson said the Carpenters are using an array of tactics to help these workers organize:
We used our industry leverage—the fact that our members were installing the cabinets—to pressure the employers from the top. We used the industry-wide approach to assure employers that they weren't the only ones being organized. Most importantly, we did bottom-up organizing and agitation in the shops.
The union also tried a tactic from the "back to the future" play-book, establishing a new apprenticeship program for cabinet workers, helping them learn new skills to improve the quality of their work. Hermanson explained that, together with the union's other efforts, the prospect that, "if an employer accepts the union, he will have access to some pretty darn good carpenters and well-trained cabinet makers," is contributing to the success of the organizing drive. The union has already organized 10 shops that provide 90 percent of the cabinet work for the casinos. Now, the union is reaching out to workers at other cabinet shops in the Las Vegas area.
Learning from their successes and their setbacks, these innovative but experienced organizers urge an approach that might be called not :back to the future" but "back to basics": building organizations, addressing issues, providing services, seeking collective bar-gaining when possible, and winning battles in other arenas when necessary.
"If you strip away what unions are really about, they're about building organizations," the CWA's Larry Cohen, who directs the union's organizing programs, declared in an interview. "At their soul, they're not just about contracts and representation elections, important as those are. Unions are organizations of working people."
Through these organizations, Cohen believes, workers can wage campaigns on issues of importance to them, such as the IBM pension cutbacks or Microsoft's treatment of its temporary employees. Through tactics such as demonstrations, media coverage, and meetings with public officials, these employee organizations can gain support and eventually even prevail. Meanwhile, the organization should also be a source of information about employee issues and of services employees need, such as training for high-tech workers. All this can build a growing, active, and effective employee organization—as well as support for winning a representation election, bargaining a contract, and establishing a union.
Indeed, Cohen challenges the view that highly skilled employees or high-technology industries have no interest in unions or collective bargaining, declaring: "The main barrier to extending collective bargaining is not so much the character of the work force as the resistance of the employer." He notes that, over the past two years, more than 5,000 workers in the wireless telephone industry have organized and joined CWA. Most work for companies where CWA already represents other workers and negotiated "neutrality" agreements under which management does not interfere with workers' organizing efforts.
But the management of many newer, non-union companies, such as Microsoft and Amazon.com, op-pose any attempt by employees to build an organization of their own. While this clashes with the companies' images of gentle informality, Cohen explains:
There is a line in a song by The Who that says, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." In a similar vein, we might say, "Meet the new economy, same as the old economy," because the bosses' attitudes about worker organization are, if anything, more harsh today. They are not gentler, they are not based on cooperation. They're based on the sense that control is primary.
Still, particularly in public sector, educational, and health care institutions, there is the opportunity for employee organizations to raise issues of the quality of the work they do and the integrity of their profession. By raising issues about how well their workplace is performing—whether it is a company, a school, a hospital, or a government agency—employee organizations can achieve what the AFT's Kugler calls an "engagement" with the employer. And, eventually constructive criticism may lead to a cooperative relationship with some employers, as they come to understand that the union gives voice to employees' aspirations to do their best work.
So will new efforts at organizing eventually result in more teamwork between employees and employers in the new economy? Will unions new and old help provide improved training, portable health coverage and retirement benefits, and a better match-up between skilled workers and the employers who need them?
In large measure, it all depends on what workers arc doing and how their employers respond in companies like IBM, Microsoft, and Amazon.com—and in places as different as Endicott, N.Y., and Redmond, Wash.
David Kusnet writes frequently on labor and work-place issues. He was chief speechwriter for President Clinton from 1992 through 1994 and is a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute.